Presidential politics has long been a nasty business. For example, the kind of trash talking we hear from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton goes all the way back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
But what is surprising is how many of today’s hot-button issues and campaign norms began during the three failed presidential campaigns of Lexington’s favorite son, Henry Clay.
Scapegoating immigrants. The two-party system. Mass media influence. Claims of unethical behavior and personal immorality. They were all there as Clay’s bitter rivalry with Andrew Jackson played out in the elections of 1824, 1832 and 1844. Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, has a new exhibit with artifacts exploring those campaigns.
A good time to see the exhibit is Sept. 24, when Ashland has its annual Living History day. In addition to craft shows and costumed re-enactors shooting muskets and cannon, festivities include a demonstration of hemp processing from Ashland’s first crop in more than a century.
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The exhibit also is open during regular business hours, and there are special tours of the mansion focusing on Clay’s presidential campaigns at 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays during September and October.
“The development of modern politics in some ways can be traced to Clay and Jackson and to these elections,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “A lot of the issues we have today in some sense were there then.”
Clay was one of four men who sought the presidency in 1824. They all called themselves Democratic Republicans, but their ideologies were very different. Clay came in fourth in the voting. William Crawford then suffered a stroke. That left John Quincy Adams, the second president’s son, and Jackson, who had become famous as a general during the War of 1812.
Jackson won the popular vote, but didn’t get enough electors to win. That sent the election to the House of Representatives, where Clay was speaker. Clay, who feared a general might try to become a dictator, sided with Adams.
Adams won the House vote, then appointed Clay as secretary of state, which infuriated Jackson. “This is where Jackson comes up with this whole charge of ‘corrupt bargain’ — a charge he will trumpet for the rest of his life,” Brooks said.
Clay and Jackson would feud for decades over that and an 1828 whisper campaign against Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who married him in 1791 before her divorce from a Harrodsburg man was final. Corruption! Immorality! Sound familiar?
Clay and others formed the Whig Party to counter Jackson’s power, but Clay wasn’t the party’s nominee when Jackson was elected in 1828. Four years later, Clay became the first candidate nominated by a party convention, as the process has worked ever since, but Jackson won a second term.
“These two men become the foci of the division in our politics between strong federal government and states’ rights,” Brooks said. “That results in the Whigs and Democrats. The Whigs ultimately shatter after Clay’s death (in 1852) and one of those shards becomes the Republican Party.”
The Clay and Jackson campaigns marked the rise of campaign journalism and propaganda, as candidates aligned themselves with partisan newspapers or started their own newspapers. Electronic reporting began on May 1, 1844, when news of Clay’s last Whig nomination for the presidency was sent from Baltimore to Washington in an early test of Samuel Morse’s telegraph.
“Today’s elections are all about media,” Brooks noted. “And they are largely driven by what is said electronically.”
Morality issues would plague Clay by 1844 — as they had Jackson in 1828. To counter Clay’s reputation as a bourbon-drinking gambler who loved to party, the Whigs chose squeaky clean Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey as his running mate. Still, they narrowly lost to Jackson’s friend James K. Polk amid allegations of rigged elections in Louisiana and New York.
Immigration was an issue in the 1844 campaign, with rhetoric that echoes Trump.
“The Nativists were asserting that all these immigrants, mostly from places like Germany and Ireland and largely Catholic, were taking jobs away from Americans and creating the problems that existed in the country,” Brooks said.
After the Whig party collapsed, some nativists started the Native American Party — the infamous “know nothings” — who sparked anti-Catholic riots such as the one in Louisville in 1855 that left 22 people dead.
This fall’s election marks the first time a major party has nominated a woman for president, and there is a Clay connection there, too. Clay’s great-granddaughter, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, and his cousin’s daughter, Laura Clay, were two leading campaigners who helped get women the right to vote.
If you go
What: Ashland Living History Event
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 24
Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.
Cost: $14 adults, $7 children ages 6-17.
More info: Henryclay.org, (859) 266-8581